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Simba

Simba(1955)

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teaser Simba (1955)

In 1952, Britain's Rank Films found success with The Planter's Wife (1952, aka Outpost in Malaya), a film about Communist insurgents terrorizing British rubber plantation farmers in Malaya. Rank had previously shied away from topical colonial war films, but the box-office receipts in this case were hard to ignore. A similar topic was sought as a follow-up, and the most exploitable hot spot making the news at the time was in Kenya, site of the Mau Mau Uprising, where British colonialism was fighting back against a violent resistance begun by the Kikuyu ethnic group. Rank executive Earl St. John put out word that he was interested in a film about the uprising and, according to Sue Harper in British Cinema of the 1950s, 23-year-old Anthony Perry from the story department took the call "...and boldly but untruthfully told him that he was already writing a treatment for a film about the Mau Mau in Kenya. Although Perry had not even started, a few days later he presented St. John with a first draft." Rank sent Perry to Kenya to develop the story. Harper writes that during his stay, "...[Perry] was surrounded by [British] 'information officers' who sought to influence him, or at least to ensure that he met 'the right people.' Little did they realize that Perry's main adviser was Charles Njonjo, a smooth, personable Kikuyu barrister, who had been banished to London as a Mau Mau suspect and who later became Attorney-General in Kenya's first independent government." John Baines fashioned a script from Perry's story and Brian Desmond Hurst was assigned to direct the film, called Simba (1955), named for the fictional tribal leader of the Mau Mau sect terrorizing British farmers.

Rank sent an advance unit to Kenya for extensive 2nd unit shooting; establishing shots of the beautiful countryside were made, as well as background plates that the actors would later appear with. (The cinematographer was Geoffrey Unsworth, future Director of Photography on such pictures as Becket [1964], 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968], Cabaret [1972], and Tess [1979]). Much of the main cast was made up of Rank contract players, including long-time contractee Dirk Bogarde, who had just scored a major hit in Britain with the comedy Doctor in the House (1954). The lead actors never set foot in Kenya; they had been doubled in long shots on location, and for the main shoot they appeared in front of rear projection screens and on sets built in Pinewood Studios in England.

The point-of-view of Simba is made clear in the short pre-credits sequence, where we see an African on a bicycle pull off the road upon hearing the low cries of a man in pain. The cyclist approaches a middle-aged white farmer, bloodied and injured, and instead of rendering aid, he pulls out a machete and brutally finishes the job. The credits appear over aerial shots of Kenya. A small prop plane lands at the Nairobi airport and Alan Howard (Dirk Bogarde) is met there by Mary Crawford (Virginia McKenna), a childhood sweetheart. Alan is in Kenya to visit his brother, but when he and Mary arrive at his farm, it is swarming with local police the house has been ransacked and the brother brutally murdered by the Mau Mau. Alan is furious and distrustful of all black Africans, including Dr. Karanja (Earl Cameron), for whom Mary works as a nurse. Attacks in the region continue, and Alan expresses concern for the safety of Mary's parents (Basil Sydney and Marie Ney). Alan also must defend himself from locals who work as servants in his brother's house, proving to him that none can be trusted, and that the police are not doing enough to protect the settlers.

Director Hurst was quoted in the press at the time of the film's release as saying that "we have to be most scrupulous with a subject like this. Every care must be taken to give both the European and African view to the whole situation." Yet as Susan Carruthers points out in an essay in the book, Terrorism, Media, Liberation, "...no mention is made of the Kikuyu socioeconomic situation, or grievances over the question of land ownership. ...Simba contains only one main African character, and he is a 'loyal' Westernized Kikuyu doctor, whose explanations of Mau Mau are colored by his utter rejection of it." Carruthers also notes that the film "...fail[s] to paint nearly as grim a picture of settler extremism as was actually the case, leaving the audience with little doubt that whites were the real victims of the Kenyan situation."

For the sake of the box-office, Rank was undoubtedly more interested in sensationalism than in any sort of political propaganda. Still, it is no surprise that Simba is biased in its depiction of the Mau Mau Uprising, including the sort of dehumanizing that occurs with any level of racial prejudice. As Wendy Webster observes in her book Imagining Home, "Domesticity and family are ...established from the outset as images of white civilization which the Mau Mau are intent on destroying....There is no portrayal of black family relationships in the film. Apart from Peter and the 'houseboys', black men are shown either alone, as sinister figures with criminal or murderous intent, or as a rampaging mob." The film also presents a limited and condescending view of the black Kenyan population: "Here two versions of primitive are at issue, with 'houseboys' produced as evidence that blacks are like children 'one of the family' as Mary's mother describes them who can be tamed through their relationship to a white family. The Mau Mau evoke a different version of primitive as savage."

As it turns out, a few contemporary reviews also noted the one-sided view taken in Simba. Monthly Film Bulletin wrote, "One has the feeling that tensions have grown up in a vacuum. The native peoples never express any grievance against whites, the implication being that, through fear, ignorance and superstition, they have been influenced by a band of terrorists into believing they are a bad thing." Other reviewers simply thought that the controversial and tragic circumstances were not fit subjects for the screen. The critic for the Financial Times of London, for example, wrote "it is doubtful whether racial tensions should be discussed at all in the form of popular entertainment."

In America, reviews of Simba were mostly positive. In the New York Times, the critic said that the film does "a commendable job on nearly every count." The reviewer goes on to say that the film is "compassionate and chilling melodrama, spread across a fine semi-documentary canvas in striking Eastman color and threaded about equally with sensitivity and violence. In a cold light, the plot itself seems less than ingenious, unfortunately." Even with misgivings about the plot, this critic feels that the characters "...emerge as real people, caught in natural attitudes of trust, suspicion, self-doubt and fear."

Producer: Peter De Sarigny
Director: Brian Desmond Hurst
Screenplay: John Baines; Anthony Perry (story); Robin Estridge (uncredited)
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Art Direction: John Howell
Music: Francis Chagrin
Film Editing: Michael Gordon
Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Alan Howard), Virginia McKenna (Mary Crawford), Basil Sydney (Mr. Crawford), Marie Ney (Mrs. Crawford), Joseph Tomelty (Dr. Hughes), Earl Cameron (Karanja), Orlando Martins (Headman), Huntley Campbell (Joshua), Slim Harris (Chege), Errol John (African Inspector), Ben Johnson (Kimani), Glyn Lawson (Mundati), Harry Quashie (Thakla), Desmond Roberts (Col. Bridgeman), Willy Sholanke (Witch Doctor), Donald Sinden (Inspector Drummond), Frank Singuineau (Waweru)
C-99m.

by John M. Miller

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